Wednesday, 26 May 2010


Frederick Wiseman’s Law and Order opens with a slideshow of presumed criminals expressing a range of emotions, setting the precedent for the rest of the documentary. Taking place in Kansas City, Missouri, the film catches little snippets of arrests, interrogations and prosecutions performed by the local police force on various charges, as well as testimonials from victims. We see a man assuring a policeman that he could quite happily “take care of” the child molester he wanted to prosecute, and an uncooperative drunkard is dragged to the ground for insolence. A particularly startling scene shows a landlady complaining about a couple living in one of her apartments. As the argument between the three grows steadily, it is revealed that a knife had been brought into the dispute, but the policemen doggedly refuse to get involved because “ma’am, this is between them”.

Although not as shocking as Wiseman’s own Titicut Follies, Law and Order is still a powerful work, a distillation of sixties attitudes to the authorities. Policemen are greeted with disobedience, apathy and threatening behaviour, and given the violent approach taken by some officers, it’s easy to see why. Attitudes to race are also placed under the microscope, as Kansas City was fresh from the MLK riots at the time. Although the film features plenty of antagonism between white law enforcers and black criminals, Wiseman is careful not to perpetuate stereotypes on either end, best summarised by the touching sequence where a white policeman comforts a lost young black girl.

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